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Front of house: Peter Avis – an Englishman in New York

24 September 2009
Front of house: Peter Avis – an Englishman in New York

In July, Liverpool-born Peter Avis, 34, restaurant manager at London's Babylon Restaurant at the Roof Gardens, won the Academy of Food & Wine's inaugural Restaurant Manager of the Year competition. Part of his prize was a stage at trendy New York restaurant Eleven Madison Park. Here is Peter's account of his trip.

DAY ONE

I stayed at the Mave hotel, one of the trendiest places in New York City. The service was impeccable, the decor amazing - all red and white with balloons in the foyer. It's very welcoming and does a fab breakfast to go - just grab what you want and eat it on the move, in your room, or wherever. What a great idea!

I arrived at Eleven Madison Park for the first of my three days. I was greeted and shown around by Rob Kihistrom, one of the dining room managers. He's from London and used to work for the Conran group.

The restaurant is stunning in a very 1920 style. It has a theatrically tall, marble and nickel-walled hall and is set in the old Metropolitan Life building, with grand windows opening on to Madison Square Park.

Once the tour was over I was invited to what the guys here call "happy hour Wednesday" - a training session led by different team members each week. On my first day, Megan Vaughan, one of the sommeliers, or wine captains as they are called here, led a session on the effect of soil on wine. We tasted some amazing Sancerre and Barolo.

It was now time for our staff meal, known as the "family" meal. Like at Babylon, this is a great opportunity to catch-up with staff. A team brief followed - known as a line-up. This is a daily meeting where the restaurant manager briefs everyone on issues regarding the service, how many covers are booked, training or anything new on the menu or any wine specials. On day one, award-winning wine director John Regan explained a new Riesling, which we'll be selling by the glass. John is one of the most respected sommeliers in the USA, having won the James Beard Foundation - Outstanding Wine Service Award 2008 and the James Beard Foundation - Outstanding Service Award 2004.

After the line-up it was time to see how the service works. The staff set-up is much the same as in the UK. There's a head waiter, chef de rang and commis, but here they are called captain, server and assistant server. There are also two sommeliers or wine captains. Most of the staff here graduated from the CIA - the Culinary Institute of America - and they take their jobs very seriously. During pre-opening check Rob explained they run a programme called "ownership", which is where managers make team members responsible for different areas. So, an assistant server might be in charge of linen, for example.

There are a lot of things the staff here are expected to know but they are given all the tools and information they need to do their jobs to a high standard. The restaurant was recently awarded four stars in the New York Times and the whole team was really excited - they've been much busier since the review.

I started my shift by observing the food - traditional with a modern twist. For example, poached prawns are dressed with crème fraîche, diced green apple and lime juice and then moulded into a thin, horizontal column with thinly sliced, vivid avocado. The restaurant is also known for its lavender honey-glazed duck. This dish looks amazing and is carved at the table in a very theatrical way.

DAY TWO

In my second day at Eleven Madison Park I spent time with the reservations team. It was great seeing how they go about booking their tables. The guys are so busy yet so calm. I picked up some tips to use back home. One thing the reservation team does here is to call the waiting list back when they don't have a table for the guest - I think this is really good service and intend to introduce it at Babylon.

Since winning four stars, Eleven Madison Park has really become the place to be in New York. While I was sitting in the reservation office Elvis Costello booked a table. The restaurant now does an average of 110 covers for lunch and 150 for dinner - a huge increase from its previous 50 for lunch and 70 for dinner. General manager Will Guidara, who has been at the restaurant for more than three years, says it has been a real challenge to stay on top of the increase in business.

The clientele here are very New York chic, and very demanding. On my first night we had a group of five New York ladies for dinner and the host insisted on having a round table even though the restaurant was full and had no free round tables. Dining room manager Rob managed to deal with it in a very elegant way by assuring them that should a table become free, he would move them, and gave them a complimentary bottle of Champagne - the ladies loved this and were eventually moved for the desserts. Rob made a note to give her a round table next time she booked.

Guests here are very curious about food and wine. John, the wine director, was chatting to one table about wine and they decided to go for a Pinot Noir. When asked what style they'd prefer they said earthy and ordered a bottle costing $95. Customers ask questions about wine here too, which is great. One asked how best to taste it, instead of pretending to know. John guided him in a really informative but understandable way.

Eleven Madison Park is also famous for its suckling pork. Pork is, apparently, very "now" in New York and it's one of the top sellers. There's also a pork tasting menu, which is very popular. The best-selling dessert is their peanut butter pie served with popcorn ice-cream - I had two portions myself. I hope I can convince Oliver, my pastry chef, to do an equally yummy version.

The clientele here really enjoy their food and seem very engaged with the staff. I was asked when the building opened and what it was before it was a restaurant - thankfully I'd been briefed beforehand. Guests here want to know it all. A clever idea is the information cards they have for guests to take away. These cover everything from the wines to where you can purchase the towels in the bathroom - a great idea. The restaurant also produces a magazine, which goes out to the database of customers - something else I'd love for Babylon.

The staff here can work up to 70, sometimes 80 hours, per week. They work on a low hourly rate in the USA, just $4.60 (£2.79) an hour, but each bill pays an average of 20% tip. The tips are all pooled and then split on a point basis, so staff make good money but work very hard for it. Head waiters can make around $90,000-$100,000 (£54,639-£60,703) a year, but work long days and sometimes without a day off, or only one day off a week. But this seems to be the culture and the guys here love it, they really are a big family and go out after work New York-style.

DAY THREE

By the time my third and last day at the restaurant arrived I was really enjoying the place. The team is amazing and I had learnt so much. I had a coffee with Will Guidara and we discovered how much we have in common as managers in the sense of how much importance we place on our team and their development. He is never complacent with where his restaurant is, even though they've just got four stars. He still wants to keep going, in much the same way I do with Babylon.

Will wants his restaurant to be remembered as one of the best, and he really deserves it to be. My experience at Eleven Madison Park served to reinforce the fact that even though we have so many amazing chefs, such as Daniel Humm, here at Eleven Madison, and Ian Howard, my head chef at Babylon, front-of-house plays a key role in the delivery of the overall guest experience. My time in New York really demonstrated that.

There were 170 covers booked for my final dinner service - the most the restaurant had done since the review. You could really feel the buzz among the team. This is what makes our job so rewarding - the challenge of delivering a top show each and every time. The expectations of this place are so high and everyone was ready to go!

The team is very passionate about what they do - most of them have been at the CIA for up to four years studying hospitality. They take front-of-house very seriously. They come to the line-up every day with their files full of information. I feel this comes from Will, the general manager, who really cares for his team and it shows.

As I flew home I thought about how much has happened since I won UK Restaurant Manager of the Year. I have spent time at Kasbah Tamadot, Virgin Limited Edition's retreat in Morocco; been to Necker Island, our collection's award-winning island; become an ambassador for the National Skills Academy; hosted a master class for the Academy of Food & Wine; and been invited to speak at the Restaurant Show in October. Next week, I am the guest of honour at Liverpool College.

But my time in New York has really inspired me to keep moving forward with my team and restaurant. Being away made me realise how lucky I am to be in my position and how important it is for me to keep raising the profile of front-of-house and to develop my team at Babylon to make sure they're the best they can be.

More front-of-house articles

Front of house: In the front line

Front of house - the Dorchester chronicles

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